University of Rochester

Christopher Lasch, Renowned Social Critic, Dies

February 15, 1994

Christopher Lasch, the Don Alonzo Watson Professor of History at the University of Rochester and a historian renowned for his shrewd insights into the changing moods of American society, died Monday [February 14, 1994] at his home in Pittsford, N.Y. of cancer. He was 61.

Lasch joined the University faculty in 1970, becoming chairman of the history department in 1985. He was nationally acclaimed for the way he analyzed modern American society through the lens of history.

"Professor Lasch was certainly among the most distinguished historians ever to teach at the University," said President Dennis O'Brien. "We feel his loss sharply."

"Christopher Lasch was a towering figure in American intellectual life for over 30 years," said his friend and colleague, Robert Westbrook, an associate professor of history at the University. "A thinker of unflinching integrity, he was one of the few social critics whose ideas and influence extended well beyond the walls of the university. For those who knew only his work, he might well have seemed above all the severe naysayer. But for those who knew him personally, Kit Lasch was a gentle man of unsparing generosity and diffident grace."

Lasch gained national notoriety for his discomforting analyses of American society. The Culture of Narcissism, in which he predicted Americans would turn to increasing consumption during the 1980s, became a bestseller and led to a consulting invitation from President Jimmy Carter. Other notable books include Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged, in 1977, and The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times, in 1984. His book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy is to be published by W.W. Norton this fall.

"My work is really an attempt to use history as a form of social criticism and to bring the past to bear on the present," he once said.

Such an approach, he added, should be more common in academic circles. Instead, historians often fall into the trap of rewriting history to fit their beliefs about today's society.

Lasch was especially interested in the American notion that each generation should do better economically than the one before. As he saw it, the idea that progress is inevitable has bred this century's social, political and economic problems.

"The assumption that our standard of living (in the broadest meaning of that term) will undergo a steady improvement colors our view of the past as well as our view of the future," he wrote. "It gives rise to a nostalgic yearning for bygone simplicity."

In his 1991 book, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, Lasch took that criticism one step further. He jabbed at the 18th-century belief, still prevalent today, that society's advancement occurs as consumption mushrooms. He accused political parties of selling Americans a bill of goods. Progress defined this way, he argued, is a myth.

Lasch's criticisms earned him a much wider public than most academic historians. His focus always was to show how the individual is alienated in a consumer culture. Difficult to label politically, Lasch hit plenty of hot buttons by taking positions alternately espoused and condemned by both neoconservatives and liberals.

Liberals, with whom Lasch identified himself early in his career, opposed his later writings, which lamented the breakdown of community spirit and traditional families in America. Conservatives disliked his invectives against the elitism of the Reagan era -- and his claims that conservatism was not a presidential priority during the 1980s.

Lasch was a frequent contributor to national publications such as Time and The New York Times, and was the subject of a two-page profile in U.S. News & World Report after his last book, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, was released in 1991.

The writer of that article said that by raising questions about the idea of progress and by urging new respect for working- class values, Lasch had performed a service to society. "In the process," he wrote, "he may have provided the outline of a social gospel for the century ahead."

Said historian John Patrick Diggins of the City University of New York, in the same article, "The assumption of progress is unquestioned in Western culture. It is important that a great historian like Lasch question it."

Lasch was an adviser for the Center for the Study of Commercialism, which studies the way America embraces capitalism and consumption. He also was a consulting editor for a variety of national publications and a recipient of Ford and Guggenheim Foundation grants.

His accomplishments earned him honorary doctor of humane letters degrees from Bard College in 1977 and Hobart and William Smith Colleges in 1981.

Born June 1, 1932, in Omaha, Neb., Lasch attended Harvard University, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1954. He flirted with the idea of going into journalism like his father, an editorial writer, but reconsidered when he was told newspapers were folding every day.

He went on to Columbia University, where he earned a master's degree in 1955 and a Ph.D. in history in 1961. He taught at Williams College for three years in the 1950s and at Roosevelt University, the University of Iowa, and Northwestern University in the 1960s. He joined the Rochester faculty in 1970 and became Don Alonzo Watson Professor of History in 1979.

Lasch is survived by his wife, Nell, and four children: Robert, of South Newfane, Vt.; Elizabeth, of Syracuse; Catherine, of Rochester; and Christopher, of Boulder, Colo. He is also survived by his father, Robert, of Green Valley, Ariz., and a sister, Kate Allen, of Denver.

There will be no funeral service. There will be a memorial service at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 27 in the Interfaith Chapel on the University's River Campus. The family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Department of History.